Nothing irritates New York Times columnist Frank Rich more than Republicans who — in Rich's view — want to turn the clock back to the 1950s. That long-ago time in America was never the idyll it is sometimes portrayed to be, Rich believes, but rather a “phony nirvana” rife with racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic injustice.
So it is surprising that in a new column, “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” Rich waxes nostalgic about…the 1950s. He tells the story of Robbins Barstow, a union official living in suburban Connecticut who in the 50s was an avid home-movie maker. In 1956, Barstow, his wife, and three children won a trip to Disneyland in a contest sponsored by 3M, the makers of Scotch Tape. The home movie Barstow made of the experience, “Disneyland Dream,” portrays the happy family boarding an old Constellation propeller aircraft to fly to the paradise of Southern California and enjoy the wonders of Disneyland. It has become something of a classic of post-war Americana.
To Rich, the Barstows lived in “an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then.” Even when American optimism was shaken, as it was after the Soviets' launch of Sputnik in 1957, there was a “bedrock faith in the American way” that leaders like John F. Kennedy could call on to “reclaim America's heroic destiny.”
More than anything, Rich asserts, the America of the 1950s brought promise, hope, and optimism. “The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates 'Disneyland Dream' from start to finish,” writes Rich. “Economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class.”
Rich devotes a few words to some of the non-wonderful things about the 1950s, making a passing reference to the absence of “a nonwhite face among [the Barstows'] neighbors back home or at Disneyland.” (Just for the record, the Barstows lived not in Yazoo City, Mississippi but in Hartford suburb of Wethersfield, Connecticut.) On the whole, though, Rich paints a glowing picture of the 50s to stand in stark contrast to today, when middle-class wages are stagnant, and, according to Rich, people no longer trust capitalism to reward hard work. “Many of America's best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands,” Rich writes. So unlike those great 1950s!
What a difference a few years and a change in political leadership can make. Back in 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress, new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich cited the 1950s as proof that years of liberal social policy had done great damage to America. “Why do we have all these problems we didn't have in 1955?” Gingrich asked.
Rich was livid. “May we go back to 1955 for a moment?” he asked in an angry response to the new Speaker. The 50s were “not all 'Father Knows Best' and sunny Normal Rockwell family tableaux.” In fact, Rich wrote, the 1950s were rife with out-of-wedlock births, drug use, and divorce. The image of the happy middle-class, Mom-and-Dad-and-Buddy-and-Sis family — a family like, say, the Barstows — was a cruel deception.
“The truth about the 50's is that all the post-World War II fissures in American life were present and simply papered over — with the aid of racial segregation, the denial of equal social and economic status to women, the repression of homosexuals and the refusal to recognize crimes like wife battering and child abuse,” Rich fumed. “It was inevitable that this phony nirvana would crack at the seams, as it did in the 60s.”
When Gingrich and other Republicans advocated conservative positions on issues like school prayer, abortion, and sex education, Rich said, they were using “code phrases for turning back the clock to 1955 — when the rights of religious minorities went unprotected, when teen-age girls had back-alley abortions, when women were expected to be seen but not heard, when homosexuals stayed in the closet and when de facto segregation ruled in the nation's schools.”
Rich could barely contain himself by column's end. “Ah, the good old days!” he raged. Newt Gingrich, he said, was “America's most selective and powerful historian,” conjuring up images of a happy 1950s that never existed, simply to score political points. So what does that make Frank Rich today?